Jigsaw Jihadism

Jigsaw Jihadism

Mini Teaser: Ethnic terrorist groups like Hamas can be engaged but there is no negotiating with religious terrorists. A strategy for splitting up the Al-Qaeda network.

by Author(s): Justine A. Rosenthal

Lately, all terrorism seems to be about Islam, and it all seems to be the same. A snapshot: turn on CNN to watch a gruesome play-by-play of our War on Terror, scan the best-seller list for the newest book on Osama bin Laden, leaf through the newspaper to see the latest suicide terror attack. By all accounts the specter of jihadism looms large. Yet, some unintended trickery is afoot-imagery making the threat to Western democracy, which is frightening enough, seem like the worst kind of Hollywood doomsday movie.

Even if we suspend belief for a moment and simply cast aside all those terrorist groups that clearly have nothing at all to do with the Islamic religion-the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the FARC in Colombia and the IRA in Ireland (to name but a few)-we are still left with a slew of seemingly similar groups all motivated by and distorting Islam to suit their own ends. Yet the problem is far more complex and, as we disaggregate the threat, we see that although "Islamic terrorism" prevails in many cases, the goals of these terrorist groups are often strikingly different.

Even if all of these terrorists intone various distortions of the Islamic religion, there are no universal agendas. The goal for groups like Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Chechen rebels is "a nation of their own" with tactics reminiscent of the ethnic violence erupting after abandoned colonialism. Groups with traditional nation-state aims-even if they use Islamic rhetoric-have little interest, if any, in the United States. Their goals remain narrow and less fearsome.

 On the other end of the spectrum are groups like Jemaah Islamiya (JI) and Al-Qaeda with its various offshoots, who indeed are looking to rearrange the global order, instigate the now-infamous clash of civilizations and create a Muslim caliphate that spans continents, all the while bringing the West to its knees. Their goals are vast and global. Somewhere in the middle of all this are groups at risk, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) in Pakistan and the separatist movements in the Philippines and Thailand. These groups are primarily motivated by state-centric goals, but all rest on the cusp of pan-territorial and far more dangerous agendas.

Without doubt, the United States needs to counter Islamic terrorists seeking the ascendance of an Islamic caliphate and the concomitant destruction of the West. But this is not a battle against all terrorists in which the Islamic religion plays a role. The danger in thinking about it as an all-or-nothing war is two-fold: first, that we will miscategorize these state-centered groups and so create inappropriate counter-terrorism strategies; second, that by doing so we will push groups that have constrained goals toward the pan-global agenda of Al-Qaeda-creating the very threat we fear most.

Birds of a Feather?

There is no massive monolith hurtling toward us, razing everything in its path. There are a few big boulders and a whole lot of pebbles. Which direction and how much momentum they take on may be mainly up to us. Terrorist groups can largely be conceived as having two working parts: an identity and an ideology. When it comes to Islamic terrorism, that identity is based in religion, but sometimes the ideology is based in nationalism, while at other times in a more ephemeral, pan-territorial agenda. This difference is most stark between more traditional "ethno-terrorist" movements and the far more globally oriented groups like Al-Qaeda. As Al-Qaeda's top strategist Ayman al-Zawahiri makes clear, there is a significant difference between Islamic national liberation movements and those struggling for a new Islamic global order:

Many of the liberation battles in our Muslim world had used composite slogans that mixed nationalism with Islam and, indeed, sometimes caused Islam to intermingle with leftist, communist slogans. . . . The Palestinian issue is the best example of these intermingled slogans and beliefs under the influence of an idea of allying oneself with the devil for the sake of liberating Palestine. They allied themselves with the devil, but lost Palestine.

Recent statements by Hamas leaders draw a virtually identical distinction. Mahmoud Zahar, now Hamas's foreign minister, once put it this way:

Al-Qaeda is not present here. We are focused on the occupation. We run no operations outside of Palestine, outside of the occupied territories, so we are completely different from Al-Qaeda.

These differences do go beyond mere rhetoric. It is almost impossible to take terrorists' statements at face value, but when those in Hamas argue that their violent acts are poles apart from those of Al-Qaeda they are telling the truth. It is also evident in deed.

Since nationalist movements are focused on creating a state or political freedoms for one group, their strategies are focused on the nation-state from which they hope to gain concessions. Their violence is directed at those inside the state. Whether or not Islam provides the identity, their goals are not apocalyptic. In contrast, religious terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda engage in almost no domestic targeting. Their goals cross continents. They want to destroy corrupt regimes in the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, purge the Western presence in their lands and change the global power order.

This is why the bombers in Bali attack Marriott hotels, foreign nightclubs and beach resorts. When a file was found on a computer of one of the planners of the October 2005 Bali bombings, the instructions and strategies laid bare on these virtual pages were pretty disturbing. Amongst the minutiae of what clothing to wear to blend in with the crowds, and the size of the bombs and backpacks, was the larger thinking about targets. The attacks were aimed at Westerners, specifically foreign tourists. Since it would be hard to figure out where people were from, they simply decided that "all white people [are] the enemy." Even the locations they scouted were Western: McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Burger King. All the other attacks by Jemaah Islamiya were no different. Every one has been aimed at an international target with foreign civilian occupants: the Kuta and Jimbaran tourist areas in Bali, the Australian Embassy in Jakarta and the Hilton hotel in the Egyptian resort town of Taba. As a JI suspect held in the 2002 Bali bombings explained, once an Islamic state in Indonesia was achieved, members would work toward a larger daulah islamiyah nusantara encompassing Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines, and then move on to restoring the Islamic caliphate.

There remain very different forms of Islamic terrorism: traditional struggles for political freedom for an ethnic group trapped in a nation-state run by an "other", and battles to rework the global order, join a communal group across continents and bring down the prevailing culture. These types of Islamic terrorist groups behave differently, pose different threat levels to the United States and require divergent counterterrorism strategies because they have dissimilar goals.

The Hybrids

Only slightly less frightening than Islamic terrorism itself is our incorrect understanding of exactly what is going on, and the inappropriate and potentially counterproductive policies ensuing from our misinterpretations. Initially, no one, including the administration, thought Hamas or the Chechens or any other Islamic terrorist group had anything to do with Al-Qaeda. But, by talking about Islamic terrorism as a monolith, we have fallen for Bin Laden's tricks, and risk pushing many terrorist groups with different agendas closer together.

As Bin Laden's rhetoric becomes increasingly pervasive and persuasive, something quite dangerous is happening. Though there has been much talk of the growth of "self-starter" cells-groups of Al-Qaeda adherents with no actual connection to the central command-it is the established local groups with state-centric agendas we also need to be evermore concerned about. These groups are evolving and their goals are expanding. Most dangerous, their capabilities and infrastructure are already in place. The merger of Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Al-Qaeda in 1998 led to one of the deadliest terrorist movements the world has ever known. If more local groups join ranks in this larger global struggle, the potential for destruction is almost unfathomable. And these local groups are coming together, turning more lethal and looking more like Al-Qaeda everyday. In December 2004, the Abu Sayyaf Group, yet another Filipino separatist movement, cooperated with Jemaah Islamiya to bomb the General Santos City public market, killing 15 and injuring 58. Hizballah and Hamas colluded in the recent war in southern Lebanon and the LET, once a worry only in Kashmir, is becoming increasingly dangerous, reportedly recently responsible for injuring 625 people in the Mumbai transit bombings. They are even sprouting cells in Virginia.

Making matters worse, the Algerian Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), thought to be primarily concerned with making Algeria an Islamist state, proclaimed allegiance to Al-Qaeda in September, stating it considers itself "one stone in building the coming Islamic nation." Growing unrest in Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia, and the potential for various Filipino groups to place nationalistic agendas on the back burner in favor of Al-Qaeda's larger Islamic struggle is alarming. Groups keep falling into Al-Qaeda's clutches.

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